Category Archives: Age

Dead and Dying: Something for Lent

This is about two things; what used to happen and what I think is happening.

I was very young when I attended my first wake; young enough so that all I remember of it is that I was in a forest of legs, legs with faces somewhere up there in the distance, and voices flying overhead.  They were making words, I knew, but I couldn’t make sense of them.  It seemed as if everyone was simply saying, “Noise!”  Everyone, that is except old ladies on chairs with sad and tired faces who were saying soft things in whispers as they moved the beads through their hands.  I looked at them with the open and intense stare of the young child, the child who hasn’t yet learned discretion and dissembling.  They looked at me in the same way; their eyes unshielded by age.

Perhaps my most specific memory of that evening is of seeing a massive pair of shoes at the bottom of a staircase.  They were the shoes of my Grand Uncle Bill Fanning, brother of my grandmother, my father’s mother Catherine Fanning Gallaher from Leighlin Bridge, Carlow, Ireland.

At some point during that evening of legs and loud talk, everything grew quiet, and all over the place people got shorter in the legs.  They were on their knees, and saying words I knew were prayers because I had heard them from all the other people, the older ones I lived with.  We prayed for an eternity, following the lead of the man in front, Father Someone.  And, when the prayers were over, we left and went home on the subway.  I slept. It was quieter.

I do not know whose wake I was at.  I only remember legs, big shoes and noise.  It may have been Uncle Bill’s, since I never saw him after that, and Grandma, who was given to prayer several times a day, became more involved in her “office”.  She wanted her brother in heaven, and it was the best of things to do; to pray him all the help she thought he needed.  Never giving up

She never did.  Besides her brother,  she had a big family back across the water, and a sister here, too with five sons, and they all needed praying for.

Several years after that incident I attended my first Funeral Mass.  My mother’s mother, whom I loved, had died.  I knew she was sick because I’d overheard conversations at night in the kitchen, and my mother on the phone to her sister.  Then I was told to dress one cold gray morning for Mass. Nanny was being buried.  I rode in the back of the long black car between my mother and my aunt.  My sister may have been in the car with me, or she may have been staying at home with our neighbors.  I cannot remember.  My brother was there.

I cried.

The only thing I remember about the Mass beyond my first feelings of loss and sadness was the silence, broken occasionally by mournful music, as if the organ was weeping too; and the people singing sad songs for me and my family and my grandmother in the coffin in the front.  Everyone was in black, and everyone was sad, too.  Everyone prayed.  I even saw rosary beads in the hands of the men who moved then one at a time as they slowly went through the silent mysteries, silently.  What I remember most is the deep echoing silence in the church.  I used to think that church was huge, and that when silent the whole world was silent, too. Like that day.  My mother told me to pray for my grandmother, and always to remember her when I prayed.

I have no memories beyond the silence and sadness, being urged to pray for Nanny to help her to heaven, and my tears.

Georgie Masters mother hung herself one afternoon and died tied to the curtain rod in their bathroom.  Georgie and his sister Eileen stayed with us for three days.  Then on the third day, their father came to get them to take them to St. John’s, the big church, for the funeral.  We rode along with them behind the hearse carrying a lady I didn’t know much about. Because it was the way of it, I prayed for her silently in the silent car, and in the silent church where a pin drop would sound like a cannon’s roar, I thought.  Silent except for the quiet whispers of prayers being said for Mrs. Masters, that her Purgatory not be long, and that God be good to her.

We walked back from that Mass to our house.  Mr. Masters held my hand when we crossed Broadway underneath the El.  His hand was warm, and bigger than my father’s.  He had a long black overcoat one and wore a black hat.  We got back home and George and Eileen left with their father.  I could take you today, with my eyes closed, to the spot where I stood in the hallway of our apartment as they left the house.  I still pray for Mrs. Masters, but I suspect the prayers are put in someone else’s account.  She was a woman in pain.

I have been to perhaps a dozen funerals of men, police officers and federal agents, who have died in the line of duty, and one or two priests, too, called home after long years of work in the vineyard.  In the former cases, hundreds, at times thousands of their brothers lined the streets outside, and stood silently until the funeral ended.  In the latter, the loudest noise at the beginning and end was the tolling of a single bell.  A single bell.  A reminder to pray, to remember, to pray.

Their names, now, I can’t remember. What is with me still, though, are the days and places, the long blue lines outside, the robed priests about the altar inside and the silence, reverent, respectful silence.  These, like works in a gallery, frame my prayers, some of whom I knew well, some not at all.  But all I keep in my prayers, years on, like my grandmother at her beads.

We provide the music at funerals in one of the parishes here in town.  Some of the people, not a few in fact, who find out what we do recoil at knowing that’s how we spend some of our time.  “Eeewww!  Funerals!”  “How does that make you feel?”  “It must be dreadful.”   These are the kind of things we often hear from folks we tell about our work.

Well, sometimes…  But, then, there are other things.

Not too long ago we worked at the funeral of a person, a woman who I am told was a nice lady.  Well, no one wants to speak ill..  And I will not, myself.

As with most funerals we attend and provide music for, so was this one peopled with a number of people who appeared to me as if they had just wandered in off the street, or had indeed come to a funeral, but had no idea at all what exactly that meant, or why it was taking place.

I mean, in the latter case those folks might have been thinking  something like this about that: “Duh, Jimmy, she’s dead isn’t she; a bunch of ash in the little gray pot Uncle Bilge just brought in?  What’s the point?”  And indeed it may have been,and probably is,the prevailing frame of mind for some who “happen by” these things; little more than a quiet place to check for messages; or to catch up with someone not seen since the last party.

“Yeah, I feel sad Uncle Bob is dead.  But, look, I ain’t worked since I got the news he was dying last week.  I was gonna visit but, like, I was too busy.  Besides, we were comped at the new casino in Revere for two days.  Yeah, outta sight!.  Don’t matter, really.  He’s dead now.  Just a minute, I gotta check this message.  By the way, you going out with me and Davey on Friday, The Rotten Tomatoes are playing at The Scalded Duck.  They got this new beer they’re promoting that tastes like sour apples with a pickle nose and burnt shirt finish.”

Most of them, the bereaved we used to call them, on this morning stood at the front, at the foot of the altar in a sloppy group talking loudly while we sang some prologues before Mass. (Yes it is still a Mass, folks, though it is more often referred to as a service, as if what was inside the box or the coffin was a device to be worked on by the Gook Squad or a car needing a tune up.)

They chattered the things one chatters before a funeral these days: About how long it has been since they’ve seen each other.  About, whether or not Auntie May is as crazy as she dresses these days.  “Did you see that thing she’s wearing?”  About how the Red Sox or the Bruins or the Patriots are doing.  New cars.  Old cars.  Vacations and, recently, tattoos, or “ink” or “tats” as they seem now to be called.  There were some in evidence on the legs and bare arms of the younger women who attended; though none were on their faces…yet.

Not long after that, we were called to provide music for a young man who had died suddenly.  He left two or three young children behind, I do not remember the total number, along with his girlfriend, as she was styled in the obituary.  He was lauded as a wonderful father to the children, who played with them, and was always good for a laugh, leaving them happy they had seen him.

His mourners included a number of fellows who appeared in their “colors”, filling two rows at the back of the church, and reminding me of bears in a cage.

A few weeks before this, maybe a month, I heard, his brother had died.  Suddenly, as the saying goes.

Yesterday we were present for the final rites of an old woman, mother, grandmother and, I think great-grandmother, and several days ago it was another old man.  Dark clothes filled the pews, and quiet.  Only one or two children were among each congregation of mourners gathered to say farewell.

This morning another old man who died quietly at home, followed by a bundle of relatives, dark and quiet, was wheeled in his casket to the altar for the final rites.

I find myself wondering about the things I see from my post up in the choir loft, and what is happening, and I cannot really think that what is happening is good.

Myself?  I am I know no better than anyone below me, probably worse off than most.  But, being present at twenty or thirty of these “celebrations” each year has not convinced me that I am.

And, is that a bad thing? At least, I find it “wonderfully focuses the mind.”   We of course have life.  We forget the other three things.

In Paradisum

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We’re Upstairs…

We’re upstairs the other day in the little room at the back of the house.  Just me and her.  We catch a show on the tube.  I can’t remember what the hell it is.  It doesn’t matter.

When it’s over she says she’s going downstairs to take care of some business and maybe we’ll catch another show in time.  Fine, I figure as I follow her down.  We’ll reassemble in a while.

I tell her I have a couple of things to do myself.  I say I have a wash to do.  I’m downstairs now saying this.  The clothes hamper is in our bedroom. The bedroom is directly above where I am saying this.  Upstairs.

She goes into the family room where I had left the vacuum cleaner a couple of hours earlier.  The day before I figured I would vacuum downstairs on this day, so I’d gotten the thing out of the closet early in the morning.

Her desk is there, and she sits at it to do…whatever.  I see the vacuum and remember what it is there for.

I turn around and leave, walk down the short hall to the stairs and begin to mount them.

Then I stop a few steps up.  I just stop.  And I think, or try to think, why am I climbing the stairs?  Oh, I think finally, I’m going upstairs to vacuum.  But then I think I can’t remember if the vacuum is upstairs, or still in the closet.  No, I remember, it is in the family room where I put it only a little while ago.

And, I turn to go and get it.

As I reach the bottom of the stairs and begin to walk down the little hall to the family room to get the vacuum I remember the wash I said I wanted to do.

I stop, turn and return to the stairs, climb them to our bedroom, get the hamper, take it to the basement and start the clothes washing.

I spend a lot more time on the stairs than I used to.

The floors got vacuumed after the wash was done.  We got together a bit later in the day and watched another show.

Kevin In The Morning

The voice on the other end of the line is deep and has a thick very authentic Brooklyn, New York accent.   “Hi, Kevin, ” I say.  and he booms back in his inimitable fashion, “Pete!  How Ya doing?”

How long has it been?  Five years? Ten years?  More?  I am not sure.  But, really, no time has passed.  We are together by phone, and nothing has separated us.  He mentions the time we arrested John Yancy, a black dope peddler, in Harlem one cool evening, and he carried him down several flights of stairs, dumping him in the back of the car, and, as an ominous crowd gathers, urges me to “Get the hell outta here!”  That was back in the late ’60’s when cops were getting shot not too far away, and two white guys “kidnapping” one black guy did not look like something which should be done without a battalion of black clad troops and a few tanks.  But, what did we know?

I remember the sunny afternoon on First Avenue when he clotheslined some guy running away from us and I, chasing him, stepped on his head just as he hit the ground.  Someone else scooped him from the street, threw him into the car just pulling up, and we all piled in on top, driving off while the well dressed folks stopped and gaped, trying to figure out what had just happened to their world. It took about ten seconds, after we’d been watching and waiting for about two hours.

Today, they’d have roped off Midtown and evacuated all the people.  helicopters would be all over the place, sirens day and night, searchlights, stun grenades, smoke bombs.  After a day or so the guy would give up, and MSNBC would break down the set and go off somewhere else for continuous coverage of another disaster, catastrophe, chariot race or what all.

What did we know?

“Where are you?  What are you doing, now,” I ask.  He’s down in Georgia, Brunswick, GA, to be exact, the only Catholic surrounded by Baptists for miles around.  “I gotta be careful on Sunday, Pete,” he says.  “I gotta be careful going out to mow the lawn and have a beer.  All them eyes on me.”  I give him the name of another fellow, another Irishman, another Catholic who has to be careful in the same way down there, and tell him to get in touch.  This guy is from Indiana, a Bobby Knight fan, an old prosecutor.  They’ll get along I say to myself.

This guy got his picture on the cover of some magazine years ago after he made a big deal case.  His boss was on the cover, too, which is strange because his boss didn’t think the case was the right kind of thing to spend time on.  Matter of fact, no one but him and one lone guy in the IRS wanted the case made.  Until it was made.  Then the defendant pays a $500,000.00 fine from their petty change account, and walks out the door.  See what I mean?

What did he know?

Then Kevin says something serious to me.  “I was working for the Children’s Court, Pete.  The judge down here was an ex-FBI agent.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  All these kids coming in raped by their uncles, their older brothers, and nobody’s doing a damn thing about it.  You know?,”   He says, “I wanted to grab a few of them and give them a beating.  I had to leave.  There was one girl who kept having kids, one a year.  She gives them up for foster care, but makes a living out of the money she gets when she’s pregnant.  And, no one does a thing about it.  Don’t talk to me about foster care, either.  That’s a racket, and no one cares.”  As he talks I’m thinking about another guy I used to know in one of the sheriff’s offices up here in Cow Hampshire, from some place like Alabama originally; another good guy.

The first time I meet him is in this big office in the new county courthouse, not too far from the county jail, and he’s surrounded by boxes and boxes of smut; evidence in a case against a guy who…; well I’ll leave all that alone. He tells me that his office sees this kind of stuff more than anything else.  He’s sick of it and wishes he could get lost in a nice murder case, or some boat owner smuggling dope in from a mother ship off the coast.  But, there’s only one other detective in the whole department.

Back in the present, I’m listening to Kevin going on about life down South; about him and his wife Judy, and his little dog; about how he goes for walks along the beach, and talks to the folks he meets, and nets shrimp from the shore.  “Pete, they’re the biggest juiciest shrimp you ever ate!  They’re great!”, he rumbles.

I’m smiling as he says goodbye, and we promise to call and stay in touch, and love each other forever.  I have a picture in my mind of Kevin about forty years ago in the middle of some street in Brooklyn where we spent four days and nights back then waiting for a shipment of heroin from Spain to leave the dock so we could follow it and arrest the rats who smuggled the stuff here.  There’s Kevin in the morning.  It’s early, and it’s cool and the sun is bright, the sky is blue and clear.  He has a football in his big hand, and the rest of us are down the street.

What did we know?

I Will Lose More Weight (for JFM)

(Vita brevis breviter in brevi finietur)

I will lose more weight, growing down as I grew up.
Then I will die in my front room in the early afternoon
While an old woman walks by and sees me fall.
She will walk on and tell no one at all.

I will have the time while I am falling to dwell at last
On what I have done and what I failed to do
Before I crumple and begin
The process of my wasting.

Outside the window through which old women look
I will see falling just before I fall my old friend
Whose heart gave out as he in his turn fell, oh too soon!
One morning among strangers on the way to work.

They stood by watching, remembering what they saw
To tell the ladies, gathered like the end of harvest straw,
In the evening over drinks and dinner.
They would gasp and clutch each others white arms;

“Such things chill and shouldn’t be said
Before we have sent the children up to bed,”
They will whisper fearfully, and just as fearfully will ask,
“What else then happened on the way to work?”

Closer to the end of all my lifelong falling I will watch
Every sunset and smile at every crystal raindrop
And hear the last laugh burst from the lips
Of the one who thinks he got away with all of it.

I will have finished falling then and begin
My rest and decomposition, leaving
Nothing that I brought in, but my slippers,
And for my son my favorite shirt.

I, I must, have my last thoughts, there
On the floor beneath the window and the woman
The pictures on the wall the light fixture
In the hall by the door I opened once

To you standing on the granite step,
Timid in your summer clothes, questions
On your face not asked or answered
In all those years since we had parted.

We ate a pretty lunch in the shade of ancient oaks
And spoke lightly of the heaviness of age
On trees and people we both knew and have known;
Inconsequential words off the top of our heads,

Thoughts subliming into a slight breeze
Hardly worth the effort to give them voice
While little brown wrens whistled on a limb
And the neighbor’s dog across the street

Beat its head against the chain link fence;
Frustrated again by a laughing squirrel.
Your wife looked at the roses and mine
Took away the dishes from our meal.

Once again you stood outside the house.
Stood on the steps.  Moved to the car.
Complained about the aches assailing you,
Assailing both of us, as I listened

From a surprising distance in so short a time
To your hearty laugh, your thanks for
The meal and conversation, your promises to return
Again and soon and your final goodbye.